A Day in the Life of a Translator

A day in the life of a freelance translator

Snooze… five more minutes. Why not?

Translator sleeping morning

Working from home definitely has its benefits, especially when it comes to time. If you’re at least a little disciplined like me the alarm goes off just like it does for everyone else but there’s no subway to ride, bus to catch or traffic jams to sit in. Just a walk to the coffee machine, a switch to flick and a capsule to load. At least if you’re lucky enough to have a Nespresso machine. Otherwise I guess it’s one of those French presses or one of those little silver Italian things you have to put on the cooker. Or instant! I forgot about instant. Anyway I digress. I often like to wake up a little earlier than everyone else and make the most of that precious hour of peace and quiet before the world gets going; but you know what… I’m still a little hazy today.  Five more minutes won’t hurt…

Okay, let’s get going!

Translator work computer

I’m a freelance translator. One of the things I love about language is that it’s so fluid. The freelance world is tough though, and knowing where your next paycheck is coming from is one of the hardest challenges. On the upside, one of the best perks is the fact that the workday is pretty flexible. Most of the time I can organize my day in such a way that I just get enough free time for all of the important things in life like having coffee with friends and getting to the gym before it gets really busy in the evening. It takes a little organisation to manage all my tasks without missing any deadlines, not least because translation work is often like waiting for a bus: lot’s of time waiting for one to arrive and then 3 turn up at the same time! You know the analogy. Anyway, I’m lucky enough to have a project today and it’s 11am so I’m into the flow.

Great expectations

Translation is a peculiar beast: just because you work as a translator, people seem to think you know the meaning of every single word in the language, and expect you to translate absolutely everything on the spot; as if we’re some kind of walking dictionary. These are some great expectations, considering the fact that language most definitely isn’t just a collection of words! Culture and context are an inseparable part of translation and have to be considered, in order to transfer the meaning. This means that translators are explorers. Translators have to look up words, search for expressions and uncover idioms typical for the language they are translating into, which can be a real obstacle and it often demands additional research. That’s something that clients don’t often think about but so far so good: It’s 12:30 and time for lunch.

Translator eat lunch

One word breaks it all

Translation requires a lot of concentration. Even when I know theoretically what every word in a sentence means, I still struggle now and then to translate the author’s intent, or the meaning of the original message. Sometimes just one word can be enough to break the flow and it can be pretty frustrating.

Translator word confusion

In this sense translation is similar to writing. We’ve all heard of writer’s block and I guess this is our version: translator’s block! You need to get creative and to find your way through the translation maze. Humans have a real habit of breaking the rules when it comes to using language so I’m always trying to figure out how, and why they’re breaking the rules so I can work out what they’re really trying to say and say the same thing, with the same impact in the translation. A manual needs to instruct, a position paper needs to convince, a story needs to captivate and an advert needs to entice. A single word can be the difference between a nice translation and a beautiful one. A word can really throw you off balance sometimes. Sites like WordReference sometimes help to point me in the right direction but I never use them without checking both my monolingual and conversion dictionaries which I always have to hand. When I get really stuck I always turn to my LinkedIn group for help.

Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines (it’s a marathon)

Translator meeting deadlines

Okay, so I’ve asked the question on LinkedIn and the community has come to the rescue. I’ve found the perfect substitute word to make my work beautiful but now I’m looking at the clock. In translation, speed matters. Clients always want things yesterday! Looks like I’ll have to skip the coffee with friends at 3:30 and have my own little coffee marathon at home to catch up. If I can get this project finished this afternoon I can start the next one.

Yep, there’s always the next job to think about

I don’t always have back to back work like this so when I do it’s really important to get them done fast and keep the clients happy so they remember me for next time. On the really big jobs I’ve even hired a proofreader to check my work. I’ve worked hard at this and yes, I’ve made sacrifices along the way but almost half of my work comes from repeat business so it’s been worth it. What clients really love is when you don’t just deliver on time, you deliver early. Going that extra mile really gets you noticed above the crowd. Like any other freelance profession, it’s scary when you don’t have the next job lined up. Marketing yourself is such a big part of the job these days. I’ve found books like How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator and The Entrepreneurial Linguist have helped me get better at marketing myself. It’s a tough market out there so spreading your eggs into at least a few baskets is a must to avoid excessive downtime. Today’s been a good day though, and my next project is waiting so it’s time to relax!

Translator listening to music

As with any other profession, being a translator has its ups and downs. While most of the time you’re perfectly happy with your chosen career, sometimes (especially drafting invoices!) it can all become too much to deal with. Fortunately, you can just leave the computer and go for a walk in search of a little fresh air and inspiration. Translation is a wonderful job where you get to explore intriguing cultures and learn new things about language and about the way we communicate with each other every day. In the end, a completed translation, delivered on-time that truly transfers the message from one language to another is all worth the journey. After all, where would the world be today without translation and the ability for humans to work together?

About the Author

Zorana K is an English teacher, blogger and freelance writer at Setlr.com, an online translation platform that connects people all over the world directly to a fast growing community of friendly human translators. You can reach her on Twitter @Team_Setlr or by email at [email protected]

4 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of a Translator”

  1. I am retired, working as a freelance translator. I translate into English, my mother tongue. I wouldn’t dream of translating into any of the other languages I know: French or Dutch. It is too hard for several reasons: I feel that I would need to know what is going in terms of politics, jokes, puns and obscure double-entendres. I also do proofreading in English. Sometimes I feel like it is taking candy from a baby. Other times it can be very difficult due to some reference that I don’t understand. Well, that’s life!

  2. I would be ashamed to say I work for a company which promotes “careers” for “translators with no qualification”. Thank you for contributing to the complete demise of the translation as a profession!

    1. Hi Giusi, my name is Greg and I’m a Founder at Setlr.

      I totally understand where you’re coming from but if you look a little deeper into the service we’re providing for a whole new world of translation customers (currently people who wouldn’t choose to use a professional agency) I invite you to discover that for the effective translation of short, culturally sensitive utterances like emails, social media posts, sections of web pages etc., native level translators with a sound understanding of both languages and cultures are doing a great job and getting paid for this work they would otherwise not have. In addition, we’re planning on rolling out a brand new level of service for qualified professionals.

      Professional level translators will do slightly more demanding work, mainly for business customers and they will earn nearly double. We’re really excited about this service which shows that we absolutely value your skill and expereince, as do our customers!

      Perhaps that can help you? After all, we want to find you paid work and it’s a tough world out there as we can see from the article 🙂

    2. I honestly don´t see the problem, I´ve heard this statement several times before, but I don´t understand how can they make a living without ever “demising” their work. I´m a professional translator with a BA in English Literature and Translation and 6 years of experience, and sometimes it is difficult for me to fill the gaps between projects, I think iti s good to have the chance to earn something extra between these gaps, besides I don´t think that they would intend to give a professional task to someone that is not qualified to do it, so the work there might be just some easy tasks.

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